What does it mean that white Americans are (apparently) willing to elect Barack Obama, a black politician, but still unwilling to engage the discourse of race and discuss continued, un-equalized race relations between people of color and whites and the long, on-going history of white racism in America? How is this socio-psychological paradox explained?
At the center of this paradox of race and politics is Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright (image from RobinDude via Flickr). I agree with Joe that Wright is “actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present.” But I would stress that Wright’s demonization and complete marginalization, not just by mainstream media and Republican circles, but also by Obama and the Democratic party, demonstrates a much deeper problem in American race relations and in ways that Americans understand and deal with the ‘race problem.’ Obama’s distancing himself from Wright and categorical condemnation of Wright’s social philosophies about American government was clearly stated. One hopes this was only a temporary, strategic political move to reach a powerful office (wouldn’t be the first time a politician momentarily masked their ideological position to win an election) and that, in fact, Obama will champion policies that amend the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.
Whatever is behind Obama’s decision to sever his relationship with Wright, the fact remains that he was forced to denunciate Wright and suppress Wright’s message about the history of white racism in order to maintain political viability in American politics, illustrating that mainstream America is not yet willing to seriously address the murky, taboo issue of race. As Obama’s society-sanctioned sacrifice of Wright demonstrates, both republicans and democrats—Fox News and MSNBC—and the American public at large call for Obama to disassociate with and denounce Wright’s unsettling message.
The exclusion of Wright’s discourse about race is the exclusion of truth about US history and social reality. This exclusion is a cowardly avoidance of moral responsibility and signals that whites wish to maintain their privilege and unfair advantages—white supremacy—in the social world. Sadly, most white Americans—mainstream America—ignorantly discount the harsh realities of race in America observed in the critical perspectives of those who are racially oppressed. Unlike blacks and other nonwhite minority groups, whites fail to acknowledge the institutional and systemic nature of white racism, possibly because white racism is a system that greatly benefits the very existence and life chances of most whites.
Does Obama’s ascendancy in American politics demonstrate that America has come a long way in matters of race, the dominant narrative portrayed in newspapers and news shows? The silencing of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright would reveal not. Nevertheless, white Americans will now loudly pat themselves on the back and claim that Obama’s political popularity signifies that racism is dead, overlooking Wright’s description of the deeply embedded institutional racism that still grips the politics, economics, culture and social world of Americans, failing to ponder questions like: how many black US Senators are there now, how many black Fortune 500 CEOs, what is the face of the nightly news anchorman, who is average Joe the Plumber?
~ Sean Elias, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Texas A&M University
Lecturer, Sociology, Southern Methodist University